May 19, 2020

The White House threatens to permanently cut WHO funding.

The White House threatens to permanently cut WHO funding.

Plus, a story about stolen unemployment funds.

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Today’s read: 7 minutes.

The threats to defund the World Health Organization, an absolutely crazy story about money being stolen from unemployment and a question about how I structure Tangle.

The World Health Organization flag. Credit: United States Mission Geneva

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What D.C. is talking about.

The World Health Organization. Late last night, President Trump threatened to permanently cut off funding to the WHO and revoke the U.S. membership as punishment for the organization’s missteps in handling COVID-19 and China. In April, he suspended funding while the U.S. reviewed the WHO’s response.

“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” Mr. Trump wrote in a letter shared on Twitter. “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.”

Trump broke the news via Twitter, where he posted the full contents of a letter written to WHO Director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The letter says the WHO “consistently ignored credible reports of the virus” in early December, repeatedly gave the public inaccurate information (like saying it wasn’t spreading person-to-person), and — even as late as March — quoted the WHO as saying COVID-19 does not transmit as efficiently as the flu.

The president also took pains to note that the WHO has ignored the racist and discriminatory treatment of African nationals in China, while simultaneously ignoring Taiwan’s success story against COVID-19 because of the political tensions between Taiwan and China.

What the left is saying.

Many on the left agree China played down the threat of the virus and led the WHO into a false sense of security. It’s also clear that the WHO made mistakes and gave guidance that hasn’t aged well. So, yes: China downplayed the threat — and then the WHO did, too. But so did Trump. Lest we forget, he did everything the WHO did... he praised China’s response, he downplayed COVID-19 publicly and he wasted valuable time by not responding for several weeks.

“Somehow, the lockdown of 50 million people and the standstill of the world’s manufacturing behemoth at the end of January wasn’t enough of a clue,” T.A. Frank wrote in Vanity Fair. “It wasn’t China that led Trump to spend February attending rallies and fundraisers across the country and take a trip to India and ignore the problem for week after week as cases spread.”

The Washington Post editorial board said that while it has criticized China, it also believes we gain nothing “by retreating into a shell — especially when China is reaching out” to the WHO. If we wanted to be strong, many on the left argue, we’d be using diplomacy to coalesce other countries against China and force the WHO’s hand. Instead, we are ceding the stage. On the face of it, the idea of cutting funding to the biggest global health organization during a global pandemic is absurd and dangerous.

What the right is saying.

The right’s supportive of freezing the funds. How was Trump supposed to have an informed response when China was lying to the WHO and the WHO was parroting their lies to us? The entire pandemic — and the weeks lost — stemmed from their response. Trump’s base loves the move, as giving hundreds of millions of dollars to a global organization that dropped the ball on its most important priority is viewed as a colossal waste of money. It’d be even better if the pressure works and WHO bends the knee. Trump says negotiations have already begun for the WHO to meet his terms for an agreement.

Last week, reports surfaced that Trump was considering restoring partial funding of the WHO after suspending the funding in April. Over the weekend, Trump was at a Camp David retreat where House Republicans told him not to “give a dime” to the WHO. The rumors he would restore some funding also drew strong opposition from conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, who used their shows on Fox News to implore Trump to keep money from the WHO.

Many on the right have consistently argued for a more hawkish approach to China, but they’ve also been disappointed with Trump’s handling of trade with China. “After three years of bluster and tariffs, President Trump negotiated a narrow trade deal with China,” Robert Zoellick wrote in The Wall Street Journal. Similar concerns exist now: Republicans don’t want bluster, they want a plan of action to punish the WHO and limit China’s influence.

My take.

It’s really difficult. Many of the criticisms Trump lays out in his letter ring true. Chinese officials did hide the COVID-19 outbreak and the WHO did take it hook, line and sinker, parrot bad information, and ignore Taiwan’s incredibly successful control of the virus. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how the WHO could have mishandled this more than they did.

And yet, if the goal is to free the WHO from the political power of China’s communist party… is this the way to do it? While Trump is threatening to pull funding, China is promising to give the WHO more money. While Trump was blasting late-night tweets, President Xi was attending a member nation summit where he spoke glowingly about the WHO and pledged billions of dollars in support.

That’s petty politics, but it will probably work. What Trump and the administration need is a tactful diplomatic approach that downsizes China’s influence over the WHO. If Trump wants the director or leadership to change, he should make that a stipulation of funding — and help replace the leadership with someone who doesn’t appear to be in China’s pocket.

But the administration hasn’t made it clear what they want, or what they are asking for, at least not publicly. In the meantime, we risk ceding more power to the very same people we’re worried about having that power. And, of course, there’s the obvious question: what if the changes we are asking for privately don’t come? Do we actually follow through and continue to defund a global health organization — the global health organization — in the middle of a global pandemic?

Trump is right to criticize the WHO’s initial response. It was, arguably, worse than his own response, which has also been a mess. I’m even supportive of threats to defund the organization, so long as he has a plan to leverage that money into an ask. So far, though, it’s not clear he does. The results of Twitter diplomacy may only make things worse for us and the rest of the world, and if we come out of this not funding the WHO and having given more power to China’s government on the global stage, that will be a lose-lose result.


If you’re interested in international politics and COVID-19 response, Taiwan is a fascinating place to read about. The country is officially known as the Republic of China, but it’s an independently ruled island that broke away from the mainland in 1949. China views Taiwan as a province, but in Taiwan the views are far more complicated. 23 million people live there, it has a democratically elected government, and political friction between Taiwan and China has left it on the outside looking in on the global stage.

And yet, Taiwan has probably handled the virus better than any nation on earth. A reader living in Taiwan wrote in to Tangle and said he felt “completely safe to do almost whatever I want here. It's been 25 days since the last case of community transfer of COVID-19,” adding that restaurants, bars and schools are all open.

Of course, that requires a certain kind of monitoring many Americans may not appreciate (the same reader said he has his temperature checked and hands sanitized every time he enters a building). But it’s working. You can read about the Taiwan-China relationship here or about Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 here.

Quick hits.

  1. Yesterday, President Trump stunned reporters when he casually told them he had been taking hydroxychloroquine for two weeks. The malaria and lupus drug has been ineffective in treating COVID-19 patients, according to several studies on the drug’s effect, but Trump seems convinced it’s worth the risk. The FDA “cautions against use of hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine for COVID-19 outside of the hospital setting or a clinical trial due to risk of heart rhythm problems.” Some reporters questioned whether Trump was actually taking the drug or not. The White House doctor released a statement confirming he had discussed the risks with the president but didn’t confirm or deny whether he was actually taking the drug.
  2. Nancy Pelosi, in an appearance on CNN last night, responded to questions about the president taking hydroxychloroquine by referring to him as “morbidly obese.” “As far as the president is concerned, he’s our president and I would rather he not be taking something that has not been approved by the scientists, especially in his age group and in his, shall we say, weight group -- morbidly obese, they say. So, I think it’s not a good idea.”
  3. Florida is throwing its doors open to the U.S. Nearly 5,460 new coronavirus cases were reported in the state last week, but that didn’t slow down its plan. Florida now leads the way for large, populated states on how to reopen commerce during a pandemic. Gyms can open, restaurants can operate at 50% capacity and Gov. Ron DeSantis is pushing theme parks and sports leagues to set up shop and reopen as well.

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: reader questions is one of my favorite parts of Tangle. If you have something you want to see in the newsletter, simply reply to this email and write in. I’ll try to get to it as soon as I can.

Q: Random question that may be of interest to other readers as well: How do you decide when the Left vs the Right go first in your 'What the ______ is saying' section?

— Branden, Portland, OR

Tangle: It’s funny you ask this, because two relevant things happened in the last week: first, another reader wrote in and asked why I “always put the right’s argument first and then the left argument’s second,” noting that it often made it appear like the left was getting the last word in.

Second, I went back and looked at about 30 or 35 newsletters to see how I had structured them. The reader was right that in the last five or six editions, I had put the left’s argument last. Historically speaking, though, I’d been fairly good at mixing them up and rotating which side went first each day.

In the last couple of months, and until getting that feedback, I actually hadn’t thought much about how I ordered it. I remember in the first few weeks of the newsletter I was religious about switching it each day, but as things grew and expanded I lost sight of that as a priority. Instead, I usually structured it based on what created the most fluid narrative.

For instance, today it felt like putting the left’s “take” first seemed appropriate because the “What D.C. is talking about” section included arguments from Trump. That way, the structure had a balance and narrative flow where you hear from Trump, you hear the left’s take and then you hear the right’s take.

I’m not entirely sure what the fairest way to structure it is, but after getting this feedback (and this question) I am just going to focus on mixing it up as much as possible. I think there will be instances when it makes more sense to present one side’s argument first, either because it adds context or helps explain the topic, but I will do my best to keep them on an even rotation going forward. And, of course, just work to make it the most interesting read possible.

A story that matters.

The federal government says a group of international fraudsters is apparently mounting a giant, “sophisticated attack on U.S. unemployment systems” by creating a network that has already siphoned millions of dollars in payments from unemployed workers. The attackers are using detailed information stolen from U.S. citizens like social security numbers, likely acquired from cyber hacks over the last few years, to file claims on behalf of people who haven’t been laid off. The network has exploited state and federal unemployment systems at a time when they are already at a breaking point under the weight of real unemployment claims.

One of the first clues to the attack came when still-employed workers in Washington State began getting confirmation notices in the mail that they had filed for unemployment. The workers then called their local unemployment agencies to understand what was going on. “This is a gut punch,” Suzi LeVine, the commissioner of Washington State’s Employment Security Department, told The New York Times. Click.


  • 6%. Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump in Florida, according to new polling from FAU.
  • 2%. Trump’s lead over Joe Biden in Florida, according to same poll taken in March.
  • 3%. Donald Trump’s lead over Joe Biden in North Carolina, according to ECU polling.
  • 50-49. Donald Trump’s approval-disapproval rating, according to a new Gallup poll.
  • 31%. Congress’s approval rating, the highest its been since 2009, according to the same Gallup poll.
  • 39%. The percentage of Democrats who approve of the job Congress is doing.
  • 31%. The percentage of Independents who approve of the job Congress is doing.
  • 24%. The percentage of Republicans who approve of the job Congress is doing.
  • $6.7 billion. The estimated amount of money that will be spent on political advertising this election cycle, according to Politico.

Have a nice day.

In 1988, Mao Yin’s son was kidnapped in the Chinese city Xian. For 32 years, she has been on a journey to find him. She has distributed over 100,000 missing child fliers and — along the way — helped 20 other families track down their own missing children. But her son, who was kidnapped and then sold to another family at the age of two, had never turned up. Until this week. Using facial recognition software and DNA testing, the Chinese government helped her locate her son — informing her on Mother’s Day that he had been found. And then they got to reunite. Click.

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